Close exegetical study of this passage will help us understand the principles that God has given to inform and guide the Church’s love and compassion.
1 Timothy 5:3–16 (CSB) — 3 Support widows who are genuinely in need. 4 But if any widow has children or grandchildren, let them learn to practice godliness toward their own family first and to repay their parents, for this pleases God. 5 The widow who is truly in need and left all alone has put her hope in God and continues night and day in her petitions and prayers; 6 however, she who is self-indulgent is dead even while she lives. 7 Command this also, so that they will be above reproach. 8 But if anyone does not provide for his own family, especially for his own household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever. 9 No widow is to be enrolled on the list for support unless she is at least sixty years old, has been the wife of one husband, 10 and is well known for good works—that is, if she has brought up children, shown hospitality, washed the saints’ feet, helped the afflicted, and devoted herself to every good work. 11 But refuse to enroll younger widows, for when they are drawn away from Christ by desire, they want to marry 12 and will therefore receive condemnation because they have renounced their original pledge. 13 At the same time, they also learn to be idle, going from house to house; they are not only idle, but are also gossips and busybodies, saying things they shouldn’t say. 14 Therefore, I want younger women to marry, have children, manage their households, and give the adversary no opportunity to accuse us. 15 For some have already turned away to follow Satan. 16 If any believing woman has widows in her family, let her help them. Let the church not be burdened, so that it can help widows in genuine need.
Our analysis here will focus primarily on the widow’s identity as described in verse 5.
Therefore, we will benefit from comparing English translations:
1 Timothy 5:5 (NASB95) — 5 Now she who is a widow indeed and who has been left alone, has fixed her hope on God and continues in entreaties and prayers night and day.
1 Timothy 5:5 (ESV) — 5 She who is truly a widow, left all alone, has set her hope on God and continues in supplications and prayers night and day,
1 Timothy 5:5 (CSB) — 5 The widow who is truly in need and left all alone has put her hope in God and continues night and day in her petitions and prayers;
1 Timothy 5:5 (NIV) — 5 The widow who is really in need and left all alone puts her hope in God and continues night and day to pray and to ask God for help.
1 Timothy 5:5 (NET) — 5 But the widow who is truly in need, and completely on her own, has set her hope on God and continues in her pleas and prayers night and day.
1 Timothy 5:5 (NLT) — 5 Now a true widow, a woman who is truly alone in this world, has placed her hope in God. She prays night and day, asking God for his help.
1 Timothy 5:5 (GW) — 5 A widow who has no family has placed her confidence in God by praying and asking for his help night and day.
What kind of widow does this verse describe?
A widow who (NASB):
- A True widow
A widow who (ESV / NLT / GW)
Or a widow who (CSB / NIV / NET):
- Truly / really in need
As you can see, the nuance here is small but worth investigating deeper.
For whom is the church responsible? (“καί” and 1st Timothy 5:5) – Dr. Mounce
Who is the widow that the church is required to care for? 1 Tim 5:3-16 deals with this issue. Since the church has limited resources, it is important to know who should be cared for, and who the church does not have a responsibility to care for.
The text says that the church is to care for the widow who is truly a widow (χήρας τίμα τὰς ὄντως χήρας). While this is word-for-word, it is meaningless. Is Paul saying that the church should care for the widow whose husband is truly dead? I think not. See the meaningless NASB: “Honor widows who are widows indeed.”
As you read the entire section, you see that the widow the church should care for is the widow who is godly (as seen by a life of good deeds (vv 5, 9-10) and has no one else to care for her. If she has extended family, it is their responsibility (vv 4, 8, 16).
This brings us to an interesting translation issue. The NIV says, “The widow who is really in need and (καί) left all alone puts her hope in God and continues night and day to pray and to ask God for help” (also NASB, CSB). They are interpreting “truly a widow” (ὄντως χήρας) as being truly in need, which is good. But notice the “and.” It sounds like there are two requirements, but what would the difference be between being “in need” and being “all alone”? The context shows that they are in need because they are alone. They are the same requirement. Hence, the word for word translation of “and” misleads.
Look at the ESV. “She who is truly a widow, left all alone, has set her hope on God.” Where is the καί? It is interpreted (properly) as a comma (also the NRSV) since it is epexegetical. Certain conjunctions can often be translated as punctuation, and here the “dynamic” ESV correctly sees the contextual problem and interprets the καί. The NLT is also good; “Now a true widow, a woman who is truly alone in this world, has placed her hope in God.”
So much for the myth of being able to see the Greek behind the English. The only time this happens is when you already know the Greek.
Dr. Mounce is the founder and President of BiblicalTraining.org, serves on the Committee for Bible Translation (which is responsible for the NIV translation of the Bible), and has written the best-selling biblical Greek textbook, Basics of Biblical Greek, and many other Greek resources. He blogs regularly on Greek and issues of spiritual growth.
I believe Dr. Mounce goes a little bit too far in deriding the NASB’s rendering as “meaningless“. While it may be meaningless to him, and while I agree that because there is more ambiguity in the NASB’s translation there is consequently more room to insert extra-Biblical interpretations that don’t belong in this text, the NASB’s rendering emphasizes the the Church’s responsibility towards those who are truly alone (i.e. “without family”). In other words, it signals to teh reader that part of Paul’s concern is to protect the Church from being taken advantage of by those who have other means available to them (thus depriving those who are truly in need of the Church’s resources). This is why I suggest avoiding becoming overly-critical of any translation philosophy. For the serious Bible student who depends upon English, the spectrum of translations available to us today is of immense value and should be held in high respect with deep gratitude. In this instance, I do not believe the NASB misleads, but rather, there is more room for careless Bible readers to mislead themselves if they approach the text with an agenda that is susceptible to the particular ambiguities of the NASB’s translation here.
Paul identifies the kind of widow for whom the Church is responsible:
- The widow who is truly alone and has no one to take care of her
- The widow who is old enough that she cannot take care of herself
- The widow who has been faithful in her marriage and in good works (which are described as raising children, showing hospitality, assisting the saints, helping the afflicted, and being diligent in God’s kingdom)
Two key principles arise from these exegetical observations that I think are useful to inform and guide how the Church expresses its love within the context of the broader body of Christ:
- We should take care of those who are alone and helpless
- We should especially express our love to those who have been faithful to God
First, the Church has an obligation to “be family” to those who are truly alone and without family. This certainly include widows, but extends also to other demographics that are particularly vulnerable like orphans, the sick, and the broken.
Some passages to further illuminate this principle: James 1:27; 2:15-17; Leviticus 25:35-38; Isaiah 58:6-7; 1st John 3:16-17.
Second, the Church’s first and primary recipient of its love is supposed to be God’s faithful children. We are meant to provide the bounty of God’s love to his people first and foremost, not neglecting God’s children in order to give to the needy of the lost (even as important as that is).
Some passages to further illuminate this principle: 1st John 4:21; 3:17-18; Acts 2:45; Deuteronomy 15:7-11.
In summary, the Church is not meant to be a social institution that replaces the family unit as the primary means of provision, care, and love, but rather, the Church is intended to extend the unending-love of God to all of God’s children. We are especially charged with extending God’s love and provision to those parts of our body who are particularly vulnerable and helpless. In the same way that no member must be allowed to take the resources from other members who are in more need of those resources (thus requiring the Church to be wise and judicious in how it uses its resources), refusing to show love members of the body who are truly in need is equivalent to denying God (1st John 3:17-18; 4:20). As part of Paul’s concluding instructions to Timothy regarding the Church’s order (1 Tim. 3:15), this pericope serves to emphasize the Church’s role in displaying the testimony of Christ’s glorious love!